Before we leap straight in, let me bring up two things: I am going to have to be briefer. I am just about to embark upon a pretty demanding course and I just cannot devote large amounts of time in this project, no matter how enjoyable.
Secondly; but damn, 1971 has been a tough year. I thought 1970 was tough. Seriously – I felt really bad that some great albums had been relegated to a quick paragraph at the end. Now I feel that some horrendous injustice is afoot. There is a clear twenty albums that could easily be in the top 10. As I was listening though, there were several albums that I was nodding to myself thinking, yup – safe contender – only for it to slip out of contention when it came time for the final cut.
So anyway, let’s get on. In case you missed the previous (and first) instalment, I am listing ten albums from each year of my life. 1970, my first year, has gone and we are onto the second. I do not claim that these are necessarily the BEST albums, but that they are awesome albums worthy of a listen if you’re not already tuned in…
Oh yes, and this time in reverse order!
Eugene McDaniels – Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse
Of all of the interesting people, The Left Rev. McDaniels is up there. Set out on a MOR uptown mood in the early 60s with classics such as Tower of Strength, he moved to Europe, wrote songs for Roberta Flack, including the cast-iron classic Compared to What before producing this album and Outlaw for Atlantic. Nothing that came before can prepare the listener for these two albums – not even the biting cynicism of his work with Flack. Pitched somewhere between soul, jazz, funk with strong doses of psychedelia and what could plausibly be called proto-hip-hop, the album suggests a curious space where anything could happen. Opening with the two punch of The Lord is Back, a demanding meditation of the relationship between society, religion and judgement, and Jagger the Dagger, a tribute cum condemnation of Jagger post-Altamont, both tracks carry a swamp-like, jazzy mood – somewhere between Funkadelic and Dr. John. The album sometimes veers into a more straightforward arrangement, but the lyrical devastation continues. Freedom Death Dance calls out the empty platitudes of those who would simply entertain us to social justice – “there’s no amount of dancing that will ban the bomb, guarantee equality… make us free”. On the one hand the album has been sampled to death, which pretty much guarantees a solid listen, on the other, it was called to be removed from the shelves by Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s right hand; the message was seen to be so incendiary.
Comus – First Utterance
This is one of the weirdest records that will appear on any of these lists. This is the archetype of acid-folk or freak-folk (whichever); from the cover (grotesque), instrumentation (violins, flutes, bongos, oboes), lyrical matter (crucifixion, necrophilia, madness). All of the songs are obsessed with the madness of drugs, occult, mythologies, and are, frankly, a little disturbing – if not disturbed. They were early contemporaries with Bowie hanging out at the Beckenham Arts Lab, supported by Arthur Lee and other luminaries. Notes from the 2005 anthology suggest that they made the pre-superstar Bowie look like the epitome of normality. Listening now and comparing it to the pre-Ziggy records, I can imagine.
All this would be fine, except that they are also excellent musicians. The songs, long and perhaps overly fanciful, are interesting and they contain enough hooks to keep you connected. Furthermore, there is a serious groove – a deep rhythm that is not lost even when everything turns to insanity. It’s just a shame that no-one bought the record – I guess it was just a little leftfield…
Baby Huey – The Legend of Baby Huey
I said in the previous instalment that Donny Hathaway was one of the most tragic figures in seventies soul – here is another one. James Thomas Ramey, aka Baby Huey was 400 pounds of soul. He suffered from health problems and other problems and when he died in October 1970, no-one could say for sure whether it was weight or drugs. Doubly tragic was that this was weeks after the death of his close friend, Jimi Hendrix. More so, he never saw the release of this, his only LP, released posthumously and produced by his mentor Curtis Mayfield on Curtom records.
What is evident from these eight songs is that this was a party band. From the bombastic opener Listen To Me, every song demands your attention, your soul and your body – you are not sitting still. His cover of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come is amazing and eye-opening with a firm psychedelic nod. His versions of Mayfield’s own Mighty Mighty and Hard Times rival the master’s – the latter is perhaps the definitive version. I have never ever regretted popping this album on to play. Not once!
Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers
Given that the Stones are often considered a 60s band, you could be forgiven for forgetting that their purple period was in the early 70s. Post-Altamont, post sixties, post-Beatles, they plunged headlong into the American rhythm and blues that had inspired them so deeply in the first place. Gone is any trace of whimsy, psychedelia – here we set the template of the Stones as a blues and rock’n’roll band first and foremost that has characterised most of their career ever since. While it is in many respects similar to Exile on Main Street that follows, and to be honest often garners more critical acclaim, I prefer this one. It is more immediate and retains just a little of the pop spirit that is lacking in the latter. Just look at the classics that sit here; Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Sister Morphine. These songs will never get tired or wearisome. Even the other songs, which might not be so memorable, rock and roll with the best of the bands (incredible) career.
Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire De Melody Nelson
I am not sure why I decided to check this album out – I guess I must have read something somewhere. Either way, I found a copy in a Virgin Megastore. It was £15.99, which was very expensive even then. Because of the price I took it to the counter and asked if I could listen to it first. I was directed to a player on the side and I popped it in. It opens with a very cool bass line, which languidly grooves along for a couple of minutes. Gainsbourg mutters away in French. I do not know the language so it was a while until I had any idea what it was all about (I don’t it would have added or taken anything away ). Some jagged guitar creeps in for a little while and then slips away again. And then, after about three minutes, the strings come in and the whole things goes up another gear. It was at this point I was hooked and I knew that I was going to buy it. I also knew that I was never going to regret that price-tag. It’s a super-short album (28 minutes) and it bookended by two seven-ish minute pieces. The intervening tracks are fun, sexy, infuriating, hilarious (remember I do not speak French). Gainsbourg became an obsession for me, but what I didn’t know then was that the arrangements were the work of maverick producer-arranger Jean-Claude Vannier. (We may see more of him next year.) The work these guys did together is essential in my view, and this is the pinnacle.
David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name
David Crosby been (at least partially) responsible for a whole bunch of great records. From his work in the Byrds and later CSN(&Y) and also the collaborative role that he has taken on a bunch of others’ records, including people like Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill and so on. But if you want a single document to pinpoint the reason why he is a musical genius, this is the one. And it was a record that came from tragedy – following the death of his girlfriend; and a record that came from confusion – being caught between post-Woodstock and post-Altamont, post summer of love, post-Manson. Legend has it that Crosby hunkered down in his home/studio and invited all of his friends. These friends made up a who’s who of San Francisco’s finest: Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and of course, Stills, Nash, Young and Joni Mitchell. The outcome was this album.
It has been described as the perfect comedown album. I don’t know about that, but the cover is of a sunset and it is one of the most appropriate album covers I can think of. The deep oranges and the rippling textures match the warmth and restfulness of the record. It is an album of 12 strings, open-tunings, harmonies and reverb. It contains good vibes and wistfulness and a hopefulness. Even when Crosby is being critical (Laughing is directed at devotees of the Maharishi), it falls short of being condemning. In short, it’s a lovely, warm, pretty record.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Goin’ On
This is often described as the greatest soul album ever made. I disagree that it is THE greatest, but it is unquestionably one of them. Thousands of words have already been devoted to it, so I’ll try not to add too many more. Musically, it is gorgeous. The Motown musicians were often the real stars of the label (here for the first time credited on the sleeve at Gaye’s insistence!) and if you want to know why they are considered so incredible, this is the record. The arrangements are beautiful too as each piece segues perfectly one to another. Lyrically – there were many socially conscious songwriters operating within the soul universe (how could there not be!?), but I can think of no other album so perfectly devoted to the range of issues facing the US at the turn of the decade. Marvin manages to marry this lament at the state of the world with faith, hope and love – giving reason to not give up. Anyway, it’s genius – I love it.
Dr. John – The Sun, Moon and Herbs
For those who are familiar with Dr. John, aka Mac Rebenback, this is a transitional album. It sits between Dr. John The Night Tripper and Dr. John the interpreter of New Orleans long traditions, breathing new life into Professor Longhair, Huey Smith and so on. The Night Tripper is voodoo, murky, dangerous, a wrong turn and is present on Craney Crow, Zu Zu Mamou. Later Dr. John is lighter, jaunty, feels like a parade and can be found on Where You At, Mule? and Familiar Reality. As a result, it represents a perfect balance of this doubly rich period of Mac’s career. Legend has it that it was supposed to have a double or triple album but that Dr. John was so stoned that he left it in the back of a taxi or something. The possibilities of what was lost are fascinating.
As it is, each track is as rich and layered as you would ever hope from a Dr. John album. Craney Crow and Zu Zu Mamou include swamp-like nocturnal rhythms, whispers, percussion, fantastic backing vocals. On the other hand, Familiar Reality feels like Mardi Gras, all joy and daylight. What’s not to love?
David Bowie – Hunky Dory
Let’s face it; this whole project is going to have a problem with Bowie. I decided on the first post that I would not include albums by the same artists unless there was some clear progression between the records or that I had something new or interesting to say (hence this year we are missing Roots by Curtis Mayfield, Black Moses by Isaac Hayes and Maggot Brain by Funkadelic.) Almost every year in the 1970s Bowie put out a record that was both awesome and a clear progression from the one that went before. Time will tell how much this is going to impact this silly little project of mine, but there is no doubt that 1971 marks the first truly awesome Bowie record, Hunky Dory.
A million words have been devoted to this record and I doubt that there are many people reading this that don’t already know (and probably love) it, but let’s note a few things. Firstly, virtually every song here could have been a single. Listening now, it feels like they were – Changes, Oh! You Pretty Things, Life on Mars. Even the album tracks are loaded with hooks and their own earworms. Bowie’s songwriting, both musically and lyrically, has truly come into its own. When he is down at home, the writing is close and immediate and accessible. When he is staring to the stars, he already has the obscure and mysterious elements in place. Bowie’s journey was just starting with this album, but the key pieces of the puzzle are already in place.
The Doors – L.A. Woman
It feels odd that this should be in 1971. I think of The Doors as squarely a 1960s band (unlike say, The Stones, who I know straddle two or even three decades). But this was released in 1971, just before Morrison’s death. What can you do? Rules are rules.
I am not 100% sure why this is my favourite Doors album. Maybe it is their best or maybe it simply that this is the first album that I really connected with. Either way, this is a record I love unquestioningly from beginning to end – even when I can see its flaws. It opens with a barnstorming one-two of The Changling followed by Love Her Madly. The former a bone shaking blues number, the latter a classic Doors track. From thereon in, the album never lets up. So long as you’re not put off by Morrison’s preposterous lyrics, every track is a monster. Densmore, Manzarek and Kreiger are all on top form and make the most of every opportunity. The album as a whole feels more indebted to the blues than any of the previous records – only Love Her Madly, L’America and Hyacinth House seem to lie outside that tradition.
To finish your final (official) album with Riders on the Storm, that’s pretty cool, yes? It does seem to me the musical equivalent of riding off into the sunset.
Al Green – Gets Next to You… Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells a Story… Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidanandra… Bill Withers – Just As I Am… Gil Scott Heron – Pieces of a Man… Francoise Hardy – La Question….
Finally, apologies for the scrappy writing. I want to carry on doing these, but I am rushing them a little… 1972 will follow soon-ish….